As awareness of the climate crisis grows, people from around the globe are expressing fear and grief. Counselors, therapists and psychologists are speaking up about the rise in what is sometimes called eco-anxiety, eco-depression, climate anxiety or climate depression. Particularly since the United Nations released the alarming report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the fall of 2018, mental health workers have seen a marked increase in clients struggling with the emotional aspects of reckoning with climate change.
While people of all ages are feeling anxious and/or depressed about the climate crisis, these responses are especially common in young people. For young people, the existential questions prompted by climate change are particularly poignant. In the face of an incredibly uncertain future, what meaning do their lives hold in the present? Some young people are even finding it difficult to make life decisions like where to go to college, what career to go into, or express difficulty in finding meaning in goals we have traditionally taken for granted as markers of success for young lives: goals like getting good grades and excelling in extra-curriculars.
“It’s really hard to grow up on a planet full of ifs,” said This is Zero Hour co-founder Jamie Margolin, a 17-year-old from Seattle, who is finding hard to buckle down and apply to colleges. “There’s always been a sense that everything beautiful in this world is temporary for my generation.”“A planet full of ifs”: Young people express climate angst
“A lot of us say we can’t think more than 16 months ahead because we don’t know the environment we will have to grow up with,” said Max Prestigiacomo of Madison, Wisconsin and the Youth Climate Action Team.“A planet full of ifs”: Young people express climate angst
The validity of emotional responses
As more people grapple with emotional responses to climate change, mental health professionals are reflecting on the uniqueness of working with this growing anxiety and depression. Many have been quick to point out that, unlike pathologies in which emotions tend to be out of proportion with the realities of the world around us, much of the emotions people are expressing in connection to climate change are valid. In fact, as Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and researcher who studies children’s attitudes towards climate change in the UK, the Maldives and other countries, reflects, “I’d kind of wonder why somebody wasn’t feeling anxious.” Hickman prefers to use the term “eco-awareness” to encompass all the very valid emotional responses she is seeing to climate change.
Sarah Niblock of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) agrees. In her opening speech at a meeting held this fall in London, at which psychotherapists focused on the rise in the mental health impacts of climate change, she stated: “This is not an illness or disorder, it’s a perfectly normal and healthy reaction.”
Working with the emotions
If it is more than reasonable to be feeling anxious and/or depressed about climate change, how do we work with these responses? And how do we support the young people in our lives in facing their own valid feelings about the climate crisis?
Dr. Janet Lewis, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester in New York, points us in the right direction. “The goal is not to get rid of the anxiety. The goal is to transform it into what is bearable and useful and motivating.”
What does this mean, for us and for the young people in our lives?
Talking about how we feel with others is a critical component of maintaining mental health in the face of climate change. Talking helps alleviate feelings of isolation. Through speaking the truth of our feelings with others, we form community as we find others who are feeling similarly. Speaking our feelings takes the tension out of our body as we release that tension in spoken words that are heard and validated by others. And the more we speak about climate change and how we feel about the topic, the more we open the door for others to do the same, normalizing both the topic and our responses to it. You may want to consider speaking with a counselor who is prepared to work with eco-awareness and the corresponding emotions.
Another critical component to dealing with anxiety, grief, fear, depression and other feelings about climate change is to transform those feelings into purposeful action. This action can occur on many levels, and the more the better. Making individual shifts in how you go about your days to better align your actions with your concern for the planet greatly helps alleviate a feeling of dissonance between how you feel and what you do. Connecting with others not only to talk about how you feel but also to transform those feelings into community action on climate change is a way to realize a larger sense of positive impact on the issue.
For more and more people, particularly young people, there is a desire to address those existential questions that surround the climate crisis. Many people are considering climate change when making significant life decisions, such as whether or not to have children and where to live. A growing number of people are making career shifts to better align their work life with making a positive difference on the climate front, dedicating their time and talents to solutions.
Equally important is finding balance between holding the climate truth and facing our feelings about it and celebrating moments of joy in the present. These moments are important reminders of why we love life and the world in which we live and why we care about the future, whether we are in it or not. These moments help us build the robustness of spirit that is needed to hold the truth about climate change. And hold it we must, if we are to turn from denial towards positive action.
Supporting young people
In order to support young people in facing their feelings about climate change, it is essential that we first look inward and address our own feelings. The more we can put the above suggestions into practice for ourselves, the better we will be prepared to support young people in doing the same. At the same time, it is also critically important to acknowledge that their feelings may differ from ours, as they face the climate crisis from a significantly different perspective.
We must also make space, in our own lives and in the lives of young people, for a realignment of goals and priorities so that the work of our days, be it education, career, volunteer or extra-curricular, feels aligned with our concerns about climate change.
Our work is to face and deal with our own feelings in a healthy way, provide supportive space for young people to name and discuss their own feelings with others, provide avenues to transform those feelings into action and cultivate a robust spirit in young people so they can maintain a connection to a sense of purpose, joy and hope in the present, even in the face of climate change – particularly in the face of climate change.